Leave it to New Democrat MP Pat Martin to turn the normally largely ignorable prelude to Friday question period into Must See Parliamentary TV.

In a statement delivered in his signature irascible style, the Winnipeg MP devoted every one of his allotted 60 seconds to decrying Treasury Board President Tony Clement's "refusal" to appear before the government operations committee to "defend hundreds of millions of dollars of proposed spending in the supplementary estimates."

Such "stubborn intransigence," Martin charged, demonstrated "an appalling disrespect" for the institution, as well as MPs and the Canadians they represent.

"Members well know that kings have lost their heads for failing to respect the supremacy of Parliament," he added.  

This isn't the first time Martin has gone public with his frustration over Clement's non-appearance in recent days.


NDP MP Pat Martin wanted Treasury Board President Tony Clement to appear before the committee reviewing his department's supplementary estimates. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

He also brought it up on Thursday, as he and his colleagues went through the fine print of the supplementary estimates for Treasury Board and Shared Services Canada in the company of a cadre of senior departmental officials.  

When his turn at the microphone came around, Martin explained to the witnesses that, much as he and his colleagues may benefit from their technical expertise, "what's lacking here" was the minister himself.  

Committee 'hobbled,' Martin says

Martin pointed out that several of Clement's cabinet colleagues — Health Minister Rona Ambrose, Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, to name a few— had managed to find the time to appear before their home committees as part of the supplementary estimates review process.

"Yet, we don't have our minister to ask these complicated questions," he concluded.

"We're actually hobbled as a parliamentary committee because the minister doesn't have enough respect for our parliamentary committee to attend to ask for these hundreds of millions of dollars in supplementary estimate spending."

Moments later, Conservative MP Brad Butt attempted to counter that argument.

Before launching into his own round of questions, Butt pointed out the motion setting up the committee's review of the estimates "agreed to by all members" called for "the minister and/or his officials to appear." 

That sparked an even more pointed response from Martin, who reminded his colleague that what happens during closed-door planning sessions is not supposed to be made public.

'Get your story straight'

"Secondly, it is wildly inaccurate … we fought aggressively for the motion to say the minister, not 'and/or anybody he or she chooses to send,'" he continued.

"For God's sake, get your story straight," Martin told his committee colleague.

"If you're going to break cabinet confidence or committee confidence, you should be hauled up before the bar in front condemned for it, but at least have the decency to be accurate."

Butt defended his comments later by noting the outcome of an in camera meeting is not considered confidential.

A spokeswoman for Clement said "traditionally" the minister only appears during the main estimates.

A quick scan of the upcoming committee schedule suggests Clement isn't the only minister skipping the estimates circuit this time around.

Earlier this week, NDP MP Nathan Cullen served notice of a motion to have Finance Minister Joe Oliver and Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay block off some time to go through their respective spending plans at the finance committee.

As yet, Oliver's attendance is still an open question, but Findlay's office has confirmed the minister will be sending senior officials in her stead, as ultimately requested by the committee.

Elsewhere on the estimates front, the status of NDP MP Niki Ashton's efforts to get a few minutes of committee face-time with Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch is unclear, as her motion to do so was dealt with during an in camera session.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's scheduled appearance by Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has been cancelled, with no make-up session yet to appear on the notice board.

Most ministers do appear

Back in the Chamber, the holiday adjournment looms — and with it, the deadline for reporting the estimates back to the House.

The dwindling timeline may explain why Martin and his colleagues on the opposition side of the aisle are so frustrated.

Front and centre in their job description, after all, is the exercise of due diligence when considering the government's periodic requests for a top-up from the Treasury.

Given the billions of dollars in additional funding being bandied about, it's difficult to see how even the most jam-packed ministerial agenda wouldn't be able to spare an hour to take questions at committee.

And most, it's fair to say, make every effort to do so.

In addition to the names listed by Martin, the following ministers have hit the estimates circuit in the last few weeks: Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson and Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, as well as House Speaker Andrew Scheer.

Given that turnout, it feels premature to describe the current attendance record as yet another crisis in parliamentary democracy.

Even so, perhaps the Treasury Board president could consider a tweak to his traditional approach. 

He wouldn't want to start a trend.